A film review by Craig J. Koban May 7, 2016


2016, No MPAA Rating, 100 mins.


Ricky Gervais as Albert Finch  /  Eric Bana as Frank Bonneville  /  Vera Farmiga as Eleanor Finch  /  Kelly MacDonald as Claire Maddox  /  Benjamin Bratt as John Baker  /  America Ferrera as Brigida  /  Meghan Heffern as Virginia  /  Kevin Pollak as Geoffrey Mallard

Written and directed by Ricky Gervais


The new Netflix Original Film SPECIAL CORRESPONDENTS is an extremely ambitious satire involving a couple of hapless and in-over-their-heads journalists that fake their own kidnapping as a cover story…when they lose their passports to travel to a foreign country to cover their civil unrest and are too cowardly to admit their mistake to their media bosses.  

The film was written and directed by the great Ricky Gervais, one of the most ruthlessly hysterical on-screen comedians to have emerged in the last decade-plus.  Whether taking the form of savagely commenting on the maddening monotony of cubicle life in the original BBC series THE OFFICE or risk taking social/religious film satires like the brilliant THE INVENTION OF LYING, Gervais knows how to push just the right buttons – and score consistent uproarious laughs at the expense of personal humiliation - with his gutsy comedic choices.  

The problem with SPECIAL CORRESPONDENTS is that it lacks Gervais’ trademark energetic nerve.  The film sets its crosshairs on some very topical and compelling subjects (like how news is delivered, how it’s interpreted by the masses, and just how reliably trustworthy news sources are), but the razor sharp wit and caustic condemnation of said subject matter here seems curiously muted and reticent by the British filmmaker.  Looking back on THE OFFICE I was amazed at how well the series stills holds up as a mercilessly realized piece of contempt of workplace culture.  Even later shows like EXTRAS (dealing with the behind-the-scenes politics and shenanigans of underpaid and disrespected movie extras) showed a willingness to not play it safe with established celebrity culture.  SPECIAL CORRESPONDENTS seems to lack the usually robust Gervais’ keen observational focus and instead awkwardly jumps from one tone to another.  The laughs are certainly here – and when successful gags do land they illicit hearty guffaws – but as a shrewd satirical commentary piece SPECIAL CORRESPONDENTS lacks a ravenous bite; it never really seems to go for the jugular. 



Gervais plays his umpteenth sad sack (granted, he’s so damn effective at playing them) in Ian Finch, a talented, but downtrodden soundman working with news radio station Q365.  When he’s not trying to sheepishly appease the needs to his domineering wife Eleanor (Vera Farmiga) he spends most of his days catering to the technical and personal needs of the station’s resident alpha male reporter, Frank Bonneville (a well cast Eric Bana, oozing smug charisma), a guerrilla style newsman that will do just about anything to report a story, including (in the film’s very funny opening sequence) impersonating a police detective by using a phony toy badge.  Duplicitous methods aside, Frank gets results, which leads to his boss (Kevin Pollak) assigning him and Ian with the assignment of a lifetime: journey to Ecuador to cover what looks like a violent revolutionary uprising.  Being a man that hedonistically throws all caution to the wind, Frank immediately agrees and snatches Ian away from Eleanor to immediately depart, much to her chagrin. 

Something really, really bad happens just as they're about to depart: The boneheaded Ian accidentally throws away their passports, airplane tickets, and money, a silly mistake that would, under most circumstances, cost them the reporting gig and their very jobs.  Now, rather than simply bracing the inevitable and confessing their blunder to their boss, Ian and Frank concoct a ridiculous, but fiendishly ingenious cover-up scheme: they decide to secretly set up a media base of operations in the attic of a restaurant across the street from the radio station and…pretend to actually be in Ecuador, using every sleight of hand audio/radio trick in the book to plausibly sell the illusion.  The restaurant’s owners (a very funny America Ferrera and Raul Castillo) are their dimwitted accomplices, and early on the station buys Frank and Ian’s faux coverage.  Things get out of hand when the pair – for reasons too complicated to explain – end up faking their own kidnapping by Ecuadorian terrorists, which miraculously gets coast-to-coast coverage and makes their plight the water cooler topic of a nation.  Fundraisers emerge across the US, which even leaves the very self-serving Eleanor using the newfound celebrity status of her husband to launch her own media career. 

The initial premise of SPECIAL CORRESPONDENTS is, as mentioned, a devilishly clever one.  Gervais rightfully plays right into the public’s complete willingness to buy just about any news story thrust upon them, and without questioning its veracity in any way shape or form.  As an odd couple comedy of two doofuses wading their way through a con that becomes impossible to maintain the longer it progresses, Gervais and Bana are really well paired together in the film.  Gervais can play a man-child in his proverbial sleep, and his geeky, comic book obsessed schlub in Ian is hardly a stretch for the actor.  Bana, on the other hand, is a real performance saving grace in the film, who seems to revel at fully evoking Frank’s deeply narcisstic high opinion of his own dick-swinging bravado.  The supporting cast is also quite good, especially Farmiga, who juicily plays a hilariously conveying woman that will stop at nothing to profit off of her husband’s fake kidnapping.  The lovely Kelly MacDonald also appears as a colleague/friend to Ian, but her affectionately bubbly demeanor and good will seems kind of squandered in a disappointingly underwritten character. 

SPECIAL CORRESPONDENTS doesn’t do itself any favors when, rather inexplicably, it radically changes tones with its story, seeing Frank and Ian being forced to actually smuggle themselves into the very country they’ve been deceiving everyone that they’re actually in.  The shift from radical media satire into a road trip/south-of-the-border culture clash comedy is a very peculiar one that never seems to pay off as handsomely as Gervais thinks it does.  Then there’s the writer/director’s own somewhat misguided interpretation of modern newsmen.  In this film’s seemingly “imaginary” world, radio news shows have the resources and capital to send their correspondents to other countries at the drop of a hat to cover civil wars, which doesn’t seems plausible.  And, for that matter, why isn't a ridiculously good looking, talented, and ambitious journalist like Frank not working as a prominent TV journalist instead of slumming it as a radio newsman for a seemingly mid-tier station?  Also logically baffling is why Frank and Ian would set up shop so close to their workplace.  That would seem like an obvious recipe for instant disaster, but for the situational comedic needs of this film, Gervais sure thinks it’s a hoot. 

Granted, some of the charade is indeed side-splittingly funny, like the manner that Ian inventively recreates jungle forest and gun sound effects to help sell the illusion of Frank being in Ecuador.  Also amusing is a bit where Frank tries to give acting advice to Ian as to help coach him on “selling” his fear as a prisoner in the bogus kidnap video they shoot (which has Ferrera posing as a masked terrorist…in high heels).  Some of these bits made me laugh uproariously, but Gervais never fully creates a whole package that capitalizes on all of the possibilities of the film’s gonzo premise.  Satirizing the public’s lazy gullibility in consuming news and the whole nature of thorny reporter ethics and how the two intersect with one another has all the markings of a darkly amusing and brutally unflinching satire, but Gervais’ overall approach to it here is simply too casual and ends up falling back more on easily digestible farcical overtones.  

You’d think that the typically gutsy Gervais would have a field day taking spirited jabs at American journalists stopping at nothing to shape the news for their own petty self-serving needs.  Alas, SPECIAL CORRESPONDENTS – despite showing great early promise – plays things too achingly safe with the material to make a lasting impression.  Considering that Gervais has established himself as being unafraid to offend anyone in popular media, I was surprised by how little he went on the mocking offensive here.  

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